EDA ZAHL

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Eda Zahl was the first woman who ever appeared in a photograph on the cover of The National Geographic Magazine.  She was the mother of my best friend Paul Zahl when I was a teenager in Washington, D. C.  She was an eccentric, brilliant and opinionated woman.

She was the first adult person, apart from my parents, who ever took me seriously, who took my ambitions seriously.  My parents would have taken any of my ambitions seriously, but Eda Zahl took my specific ambitions, to become a filmmaker, seriously.  She made me feel that abandoning those ambitions would be disgraceful.

Becoming a filmmaker entailed many years of failure, of poverty, of hopelessness.  I was sustained in the journey by my parents’ blind faith, but equally by Eda Zahl’s clear-eyed and demanding faith.  She taught me that being true to one’s dreams was not just a private, personal indulgence but a duty.

THE EXORCIST: EXTENDED DIRECTOR’S CUT

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[Note: This analysis of the extended director's cut of The Exorcist contains spoilers.  If you haven't seen the film you ought to do so immediately, but you should watch the original theatrical cut first, for reasons I outline below.]

In 2000, William Friedkin (pictured below in that year with screenwriter William Peter Blatty) created an extended director’s cut of his 1973 film which restored several scenes eliminated from the original theatrical release, adding about twelve minutes to the running time of the film.  All of the restorations, for various reasons, are unfortunate and seriously undermine the film’s power.

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One of the greatest virtues of the original cut of The Exorcist was its pacing, moving by inexorable but largely subliminal degrees from ordinary anxieties and misfortunes into the realm of the supernatural.  Friedkin’s calculation of this progress was impeccable in the original cut and tremendously effective.

In the original we sense — without being obviously alerted to — the tensions of the McNeil household, the psychological disturbance at work in young Regan as she tries to deal with her parents’ divorce.  The depth of that disturbance doesn’t become alarming until Regan urinates on the carpet during the course of one of her mother’s parties.

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It’s one of the most harrowing moments in the film because it combines the social distress of Regan’s mom and her guests with a graphic representation of the child’s emotional instability.  It is followed by the first potentially supernatural event of the film — the violent and uncanny shaking of Regan’s bed.

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Friedkin, however, in his extended cut, has chosen to restore an earlier scene (above) of Regan being examined in a hospital, which reveals her developing neurosis more clearly and warns us how serious it might be or might become.  This scene totally undercuts the urination episode, prepares us for it and lessens the shock of it.

At the same time the restored scene doesn’t tell us anything we haven’t already sensed about Regan’s state of mind, and as usual in a drama, especially in a horror film, what we sense tends to be far more powerful than what we are told.

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Friedkin also restored a brief scene that was meant to follow the news of Burke Denning’s death.  The moment Chris McNeil learns of this, Regan appears crawling upside down and backwards down the stairs, like a spider.

Friedkin originally cut the scene because the wires used to create the effect were visible on the stunt double who performed it, and this was in the days before such wires could be eliminated digitally.

It’s a potent and creepy image but it’s out of place at that moment in the film.  In the first place, as Friedkin and Blatty once admitted in a filmed interview, it gives the scene a double climax, lessening the impact of the news of Denning’s demise.

More importantly it shifts our attention from the mystery of Denning’s death, a possible murder committed by Regan, to a graphic and undeniable demonstration of Regan’s demonic power.  The murder mystery element, which soon involves the police investigator Lieutenant Kinderman, is a kind of diversion from the supernatural angle, and intriguing on its own.  It seems like a too obvious red herring, however — pretty much irrelevant — in the wake of Regan’s spider crawl.

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Friedkin restored a scene (above) in which Father Karras listens to a tape Regan made for her father before she became possessed.  It gives Karras an appreciation of the normal child Regan once was, but it’s an appreciation we as the audience already have.

Reintroducing the absent father here also seems too on the nose.  In many ways, The Exorcist is about the effects of divorce on a child, but this theme works best when it’s implied, when it plays on our emotions indirectly.  If we are given too many chances to see Regan’s possession as a metaphor, it loses its power to engage our unconscious.

Our culture may intuit the destructive effects of divorce on children, but it’s not something we want to face up to — we want to see divorce as a rational and neutral way of dealing with a troubled marriage, which children experience as something to be expected in the normal course of things (which they never do.)  We have to be tricked into contact with our darker intuitions about the subject — as in movies like The Sixth Sense, which is also a film about divorce masquerading as a horror film.

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After father Merrin arrives at the McNeil home to begin the exorcism, Friedkin has restored two scenes of quiet before the ritual begins — a wry and warm exchange in which Chris McNeil gives Merrin some coffee laced with Brandy, and a briefer exchange (above) in which Merrin asks Chris what Regan’s middle name is.

Friedkin has said he thinks these scenes humanize Merrin, and perhaps they do, but they also undercut the impression Merrin gives of an implacable determination to confront the evil in the McNeil home at any cost and without any delay.  These displays of courage and haste — because Merrin knows he hasn’t got many human resources left for the task at hand — are emblems of his heroism, and they lose some of their weight in the context of the restored scenes.

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When Merrin and Karras take a break in the middle of the exorcism, Blatty had written, and Fiedkin had filmed, an exchange between them, in which Merrin proposes the idea that the target of the demon was never Regan, but the two priests, whose faith the demon hoped to undermine.  Friedkin has restored this exchange (above) in his extended cut.

It conveys an interesting idea, and a valid interpretation of Regan’s possession, but it strikes me as too limiting.  Surely Regan was not chosen at random — surely her vulnerability as a child of divorce is part of the meaning of the film.  Spelling out one facet of that meaning undercuts others, unnecessarily in my view.  A good story can resonate on many different levels, and in many different ways, for different viewers.

Blatty’s desire to instruct the audience on the tale’s meaning, to reduce it to one meaning, was misguided.

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Finally, Friedkin has restored the original lighthearted coda Blatty included in his screenplay, when Father Dyer and Lieutenant Kinderman (above) start to strike up a friendship.  Blatty said this was meant to reassure viewers that all was right with the world again in the wake of Regan’s salvation, but it rings false in the shadow of the great contest between good and evil we’ve just witnessed.

Are we really supposed to believe that this contest has ended with the rescue of one child?  The very idea cheapens the thematic grandeur of the tale.  We should walk out of The Exorcist in the grip of awe and dread, and perhaps a provisional exaltation — but certainly not with good humor and satisfaction.

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I suspect that the observations above accord pretty closely with the thoughts and intuitions of Friedkin when he made his first cut of the film.  They were the right thoughts and intuitions and he should have stuck by them.

A new director’s cut has commercial value, of course — it gives people a reason to buy yet another version of the film, and this one is certainly worth taking a look at.  Friedkin has also confessed that he restored many of the cut scenes out of affection and respect for Blatty, who has always regretted their loss — and there’s something admirable about that.

Still, the original theatrical cut remains superior and definitive.

THE EXORCIST

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William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is a hard film to write about.  It doesn’t lend itself to any sort of aesthetic analysis because it makes no appeal to our aesthetic sensibilities.  There is only one image in the film which has any kind of aesthetic beauty or power — the shot of Father Merrin arriving at the McNeil house at night in a light fog, adapted for use on the poster.  (The image was inspired by a painting by René Magritte.)

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There is tremendous craft at work in the film but it might best be described as ruthlessly utilitarian — all of it is designed to unsettle the viewer, to induce a sense of creeping dread, and it does this with irresistible efficiency.

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Friedkin has spoken of wanting to give a documentary feel to the look of the film but that’s not quite what he does.  The film is carefully lit and mixes artfully composed shots, including tracking shots, with zooms — a mix not normally found in documentaries.

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The main effort of the cinematography is to resist glamorizing the settings or the actors — to present them neutrally.  Dark scenes and light scenes alternate regularly, to keep the viewer off balance, but the dark scenes are not atmospheric in an expressive way — they’re just set in dark places.  (Quiet scenes similarly alternate with loud scenes in the precisely modulated soundtrack.)

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The acting, which is uniformly fine, also resists glamorizing any of the characters — its aim is to convey psychologically convincing reactions to extreme and increasingly fantastic events.

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You would never fantasize about being any of the characters — you wouldn’t even relish the prospect of spending time with them, with the possible exception of young Regan before and after her possession.  And yet you are absolutely riveted by their ordeals, wracked with sympathy and fears for them.  This is all extremely unusual for a Hollywood film.

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The unease which the film evokes proceeds from everyday anxieties — rats in the attic, a mentally disturbed child, harrowing medical procedures, social humiliation — to supernatural horrors in such well-calculated stages that we are prepared to accept the horrors as mere magnifications, or manifestations, of the familiar anxieties.

It’s an absolutely brilliant exercise in audience manipulation, but the film deals with subjects of such substance and depth that it can’t be dismissed as cynical sensationalism for its own sake.

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It’s a great film, but great in ways few other films are, willing to sacrifice artistry for impact, aesthetics for subliminal emotional effects.  It’s still, 41 years on, one of the scariest movies ever made, and one of the most affecting.

Click on the images to enlarge.

GHOSTS

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Perhaps there are more haunted houses in Los Angeles than in any other city in the world. They are haunted by the fears of their former owners. They smell of divorce, broken contracts, studio politics, bad debts, false friendship, adultery, extravagance, whiskey and lies. Every closet hides the poor little ghost of a stillborn reputation. ‘Go away,’ it whispers,
‘go back where you came from. There is no home here. I was vain and greedy. They flattered me. I failed. You will fail. Go away.’

— Christopher Isherwood

TEARS

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I’ve watched the new Blu-ray edition of Gone With the Wind twice now, once on its own and once with Rudy Behlmer’s excellent and informative commentary.

The film, for all its flaws, is incredibly entertaining, but the sheer visual beauty of it has at times almost reduced me to tears.  The beauty is not rooted in its expressive style but in its technical virtuosity — the Technicolor photography, rendered with unprecedented precision through digital restoration, is simply breathtaking.

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The techniques of lighting and framing and camera movement are as brilliant, in their way, as any performance in the film, as any passage of dialogue, as any achievement of art direction — the craftsmanship on display in the photography is as moving as the story.

It’s easy to see Vivien Leigh or Margaret Mitchel or David Selznick as Gone With the Wind‘s crucial auteurs, but if you don’t see Victor Fleming, the film’s principle director, and Ernest Haller, the film’s principle cinematographer, as auteurs of equal importance, you’re just not looking hard enough.

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BIG CHICK FLICKS

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What do the following six films have in common?

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The Sound Of Music

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Titanic

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Doctor Zhivago

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The Exorcist

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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Well, for one thing they’re all chick flicks of one sort or another, The Exorcist being the least conventional of them — a horror film but a chick flick all the same, with two females, a mother and a daughter, at the center of it and all the male protagonists in supporting roles.  The others are romances told principally from the point of view of women.

They also represent six of the ten highest grossing films of all time, in adjusted dollars.

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Think about that, consider it in light of contemporary Hollywood’s deep, almost instinctive mistrust of chick flicks.  You realize that this mistrust is not rooted  in commercial calculation but in the prejudice of the collapsed males who run Hollywood — not in money but in the fear of strong women by men with little teeny tiny dicks.

GONE WITH THE WIND

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Gone With the Wind arrived in Wilmington, North Carolina on 26 February 1940.  The whole world was abuzz about the film, which was already on its way to becoming the highest grossing movie of all time, in adjusted dollars.  (The Birth Of A Nation may well have made more money but complete box office records for it have not survived, so we will never know.)

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Nowhere was the buzz more intense than in the South, anxious to experience the romantic vision of antebellum Dixie that lived, however preposterously, in most Southern hearts.  Young Southern women were going to see the notorious Scarlett O’Hara in action, courted by none other than Clark Gable, the screen’s premiere heart throb, as Rhett Butler.

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An advance ad for the film in Wilmington’s The Morning Star read, “Wilmington and East Carolina Welcome Gone With the Wind With Open Arms!”

My mom (pictured today at the head of this post), who grew up in Wilmington, was 14 years-old at the time and she and some girlfriends had plans to go downtown to see the film on its opening day.  It would not be like any other trip to the movies.

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The film was playing at The Carolina, Wilmington’s premiere movie palace, located on the corner of Market Street and Second, just blocks from her father’s, my grandfather’s, men’s clothing store on Front Street.  The Carolina had a marble-faced lobby and a whites-only policy — it was too classy to admit blacks, even in a special segregated section.

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Gone With the Wind would be playing in a modified road-show presentation, carefully negotiated by the film’s producer and part-owner David O. Selznick and its distributor and part-owner MGM.  There would be two “continuous run” showings per day, at 10am and 2pm, priced at 75 cents a ticket, three to five times the price for a regular movie.  (Continuous run meant that you could go into the theater in the middle of the first show and sit through the first half of the second show — the seats weren’t reserved.)

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At night it was reserved seating only, with tickets priced at $1.10.  (These could be bought in advance at a furniture store downtown.)  Because the movie ran nearly four hours, a transportation company had arranged for special buses to ply the regular city routes after hours, picking up patrons in front of the theater at 11:45 at the end of the 8pm show.

It was an event, a big event.  My mom was beside herself with excitement about it.  But the night before the opening, her father decided that he would not allow her to see the movie.  He was a fairly strict Baptist, who would not permit card playing in the home on Sundays and did not approve of movies, even the grand Southern epic that was Gone With the Wind.  My mom was devastated.

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In her 80s she still remembered the moment vividly.  “I went to sleep that night,” she told me, in hushed tones, “thinking I wasn’t going to see Gone With the Wind.”  The dashed dreams of a 14 year-old girl are not small things, and they don’t grow smaller after a mere 70 years.

The next morning, however, her father had changed his mind — he relented and let her go see the movie with her friends, and she became one among millions enchanted by that marvel of popular art when it was brand new.

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Her impressions of that first showing — she’s seen it several times since — are vague, but she always remembered that it had an intermission.  An intermission!

ON THE SET

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Gone With the Wind, 1939.

This scene with the Tarleton boys, Scarlett O’Hara’s first appearance in the film, was shot multiple times for multiple reasons — because the boys’ first red hair dye looked unnatural, because Selznick wanted a dress for Leigh that came across as more virginal than the one originally chosen.

By the time they got around to doing it for the last time, Leigh looked so worn out from the long production that it wasn’t felt she could play a convincing sixteen, Scarlett’s age at the film’s opening.  So she was given several weeks’ rest and brought back to do it once more after the other principal photography had been completed.

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ESSENTIAL

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It’s hard to convey how good this movie looks on Blu-ray.  Digital technology makes it possible to align the elements of a three-strip Technicolor negative more precisely than was ever possible before, creating a clarity in the image that’s dazzling.

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You can certainly make valid criticisms of the film itself, for its pious romanticizing of the antebellum South and slavery, for its distressing (if well-intentioned) patronizing of its black characters.  What you can’t deny is that it’s one of the grandest entertainments ever concocted by anyone in any medium.

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A fine cast, a literate and amusing script, sure-footed direction and the deployment of studio craftsmanship on a stupendous scale result in a film of breathtaking virtuosity — part soap opera, part melodrama, part epic, part lyrical romance, part tragedy.

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Producer David Selznick put the package together with canny calculation and good taste but director Victor Fleming invested it with life, made the elements cohere into a timeless work of popular art.  His direction of the film ranks among the highest achievements of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

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It’s just the damnedest thing.  The Blu-ray of Gone With the Wind belongs in every civilized home.

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ESTHER WILLIAMS

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. . . in Hawaii (doubling for Tahiti) — Pagan Love Song, 1950.

This was Arthur Freed’s only try at producing an Esther Williams film — his innovation was shooting a lot of it on location.  The film made a little money but not as much as most Esther Williams vehicles, because of the cost of the location work.

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